This article was published in Ahval News on March 29, 2019.
Golan Heights may further complicate the Syrian crisis
U.S. president Donald Trump on Monday signed a proclamation to recognise Israel’s 1967 annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria.
In doing so, the United States has contradicted four commitments it had undertaken at the United Nations. Firstly, the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 on the partition of Palestine, which was also supported by the United States; secondly, the UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 242, which urges Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders; thirdly, the UNSCR 338, which re-confirms the 1967 borders; and fourthly the UNSCR 497, which says the annexation of the “occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void.”
Israel occupied the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights in 1967 and annexed it in 1981, but the international community rejected the annexation and continues to reject Trump’s recognition of the annexation.
After the annexation, around 25,000 Druze remained in their villages in the Golan Heights, but refused to adopt Israeli citizenship. Israel settled Jews in the vacated towns and villages to change the ethnic composition of the area in its favour.
The area is strategically important for both Israel and Syria. Israel occupies the western two-thirds of the Golan Heights. The eastern third remained under the Syrian control. During the present Syrian crisis, it became the battlefield of various actors; government forces, Jabhat al Nusra jihadists, Islamic State- affiliated factions and moderate armed opposition groups.
In 2018, Syrian government forces expelled the armed opposition factions from the area and gained control of the entire eastern third of the Golan Heights.
Golan is important for several reasons. It offers a strategic position from which to observe all the activities taking place in the surrounding area. It is just 60 km from Damascus as the crow flies. It borders Syria, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon. Israel draws one-third of its fresh water from the Golan Heights.
An agreement was almost reached during negotiations between Israel and Syria in 1999 and 2000, but failed because of a difference of less than 100 metres between the lines proposed by the parties for Syrian access to the Sea of Galilee. Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton blamed the Israeli side for the failure.
The country most affected by Trump’s decision is of course Syria. It has vowed to recover the area “through all available means”. Time will show whether it will be as easily achieved as it was said. When I was serving as a Turkish diplomat in Damascus at the time of annexation, rallies were organised to reject the annexation, but slowly died down.
A big illuminated poster was placed on the top of the Mount Qassioun, overlooking Damascus, which read in Arabic: “El-Jawlaan, lena!” (Golan is ours!), but cynical Damascenes used to joke it must have been placed there by the Israelis to show Golan was theirs.
The international community unanimously rejects Trump’s move. The spokesman of the UN Secretary General said the UN policy on Golan was reflected in the relevant resolutions and that it had not changed.
The United States’ Western allies reacted by saying there was no change in their policy of recognising the Golan Heights as Syrian territory under the Israeli occupation.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the decision might destabilise the already strained situation in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait, leaving aside their bilateral differences, criticised Trump’s decision. Iran likened the move to the colonialist powers bestowing one part of a country to another.
A Turkish Foreign Ministry statement said: “This unfortunate decision, demonstrates that the U.S. administration continues its approach to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution in the Middle East.”
In light of this background, the United States is the only country in the world to recognise Israel’s unilateral annexation. Washington’s move may constitute strong political support for Israel, but it will further complicate the Syrian crisis, because Israel may grow more resistant to abiding by UN Security Council resolutions when the time comes for the restitution of Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty as reconfirmed several times by the international community, including the United States.